Katie cleaned out her closet last week, creating a giant stack of clothes to pass along to younger friends.
This isn’t unusual. Children outgrow their clothes quicker than they outwear them, and we’re surrounded by families who appreciate a pile of hand-me-downs.
What was unusual was the little dress I placed on top of Katie’s discards: a charmingly mismatched floral number that I’ve held on to for seven years, a dress that Katie outgrew before she entered kindergarten.
She loved this particular dress for its twirling qualities. She wore it to church and preschool parties. And she wore it for our final family photo with her daddy.
I’ve struggled to let it go for too long, allowing my sentimental tendencies to overpower my practical side. I was finally able to pass on the tiny dress, perfect for a spunky 4-year-old we know, because of music.
Way back in the summer of 2000, in our time before children, Steve and I attended a performance of Parade, an award-winning yet commercially dismal musical. We fell in love with the story and songs, despite the tragic themes and ending.
Parade is obscure, as far as musicals go. It tells the true story of Leo Frank, a Jewish man living in Atlanta who was accused of murdering a girl in the pencil factory he managed. Though the murder and subsequent trial take place almost 50 years after the end of the Civil War, the South is still struggling with anger toward the North and changes in the economy and social structure.
It’s heavy stuff, for sure, providing plenty of material to debate and process.
In the decade that followed, we would discuss the story and sing the songs together. Our favorite was “The Picture Show,” a playful duet between Frankie and Mary, but we’d perform them all, sometimes in the car or in the kitchen while washing up after dinner.
When Steve died in 2009, I didn’t stop listening, and I didn’t stop singing, but I lost a little gusto. Those songs, plus a whole library of others that matter, bridged a connection between life with Steve and life without.
Cooper and Katie have grown up with Parade in the background – along with U2, Jack Johnson, ZZ Top, Wicked, Aaron Copland, Rent, the Beatles, the Dixie Chicks and the Cure. Those tunes are a nod to the daddy they love, a man whose days were too short.
Because Parade is underappreciated, I expected to listen to the same recording over and over for the rest of my days. But a local theater brought the story to life for one night only last weekend – and I couldn’t pass up the chance to enjoy it live again.
Cooper, Katie and I attended the special production at the WaterTower Theatre, and I used all of my willpower to not sing aloud. I had no willpower to stop my tears.
The lyrics filled my soul again, and this time I was seated not next to Steve but surrounded by our two children. Sometimes I would close my eyes and just listen – and ponder the power of music that endures years, that sweeps us back in time and propels us forward.
I can’t possibly hold on to every scrap of clothing, every memento that ties us to Steve – or to any of my loved ones who have passed away. And I don’t need to. My heart swells with snippets of conversation, with scents that evoke joy, with lines of poetry set to lovely melodies.
Listening to the music again helped me to remember that there are forces more powerful than things.
Little Phoebe will twirl in Katie’s dress, then one day she’ll share it with sister Ingrid. They’ll create their own memories. My sweet memories of the dress are stored up and nestled in with songs and laughter and a few tears.
Tyra Damm is a Briefing columnist. Email her at email@example.com.